By Phil La Duke
This week I published my sixth article in Entrepreneur. In Adapt Or Die–Some Chilling Lessons From the Ice Industry I started out writing a piece on the importance of sustainability, my point being that not just companies but entire industries can succumb to external pressures that cause a mass extinction of businesses. Those of you who regularly read my blog or even my other printed articles may notice a significant difference in my tone and voice in these pieces and may wonder why style is so different in these pieces than the irascible, iconoclastic, raw nerve style you’ve come to know and, if not love, at least expect. As one friend of mine said, “don’t get me wrong I don’t think these articles are bad, they just don’t sound like you; there is less of your voice in these pieces than in anything else I’ve ever read by you.” It’s a fair criticism but before people accuse me of softening or selling out I’d like to plea my case.
I’ve had my work published in ISHN, Fabricating & Metalworking, Facility Safety Management Magazine, Health & Safety International, and many trade journals and publications. For the most part these folks know me and don’t do too much in the way of changing my tone or softening the “madman swinging a bag of broken glass in a crowded room” approach I take to writing. That’s not to say that editors don’t do their jobs or put their own stamp on things. If you saw the stream of consciousness dreck that I sometimes submit you would wonder aloud how anyone could make sense of it and marvel at shear craftsmanship that these editors used to create a coherent piece without losing that anarchistic feel or raw emotion that comes through. These editors know me and my work and do excellent jobs in making my work come to life. The best things I’ve ever written have been published and edited work.
But Entrepreneur neither knows me nor are its editors especially fans of my work. That’s not to say that they hate (or even dislike) my work, rather the editorial staff at Entrepreneur want solid business writing that is accessible to the masses. That’s harder than it seems; the masses are imbeciles. My jagged-edge voice doesn’t mean squat to them. Entrepreneur readers aren’t especially interested in the author’s voice or personality; they just want something they can read in less time than an average bowel movement requires. They also want one or two useful tips that they can use in business.
So why write for Entrepreneur? Well for starters, Entrepreneur asked me to. One of the editors saw some of my worker as a guest blogger on MonsterTHINKING and MonsterWORKING and asked if I would be interested in pitching ideas. Dave Collins of Safety Risk fame was first to encourage me to expand my readership to a larger audience and with a circulation of 560,990 not counting on-line readers Entrepreneur afforded me the opportunity to reach a much larger audience. More importantly, Entrepreneur established me as a business writer instead of just a safety journalist. I would like to think that my work is the intersection between business and safety.
But why is my work for Entrepreneur so different from my other work? In this world of discussion threads, Facebook posts, and self-published books, people misunderstand traditional publishing. An article like this one (which is published) is considered eligible for citation, in other words, people can use cite it as a legitimate source in academic or other research. That’s because it really is a team effort, and prima donna authors like yours truly may get the credit, but there are half a dozen people working on the piece. Sometimes (actually most times) the piece is better for it and is a more polished version of the story the author originally intended.
Here is the anatomy of a magazine article:
1) The Pitch. I have to come up with a topic and pitch it to my editor. The pitch has to be more than an idea; I have to provide the topic and a sample paragraph.
2) The Response. My editor decides whether or not the pitch is right for the magazine. She (in the case of Entrepreneur) considers things like whether it’s news worthy, does it fit with the magazine’s editorial bent and agenda, is it too similar to other pieces that have recently run, whether the author is the right person to write it, and does it match with the tone and voice of the magazine.
3) The Decision. If you like rejection, stay out of the magazine business. Typically the editor will give you either a flat “no”, a “yes, give me # words on this by DATE”, or a “What I’m really looking for is more of a…”
4) The Assignment. At this point the author is able either accept the assignment or turn it down. I have turned down assignments because either a) I didn’t believe in the position I was asked to support b) felt that I didn’t have standing to speak on a topic or c) the assignment was more work than I thought it would be worth.
5) The Writing. Writing for publication is a lot different that writing for school or work. Editors expect an error free draft that is exactly the number of words they requested. They aren’t proofreaders and aren’t happy with an author who uses “their” instead of “there”. If it does have typos, grammatical errors or does not follow the editorial style (things like whether or not bullet lists are title case (every word capitalized except articles) or sentence case (only the first word capitalized) and literally a 1,000 other little nitpicky things that the magazine does a specific way the article is likely to be thrown back to the author with the brusque instruction to “fix it”. (If the author doesn’t, or submits slop routinely the article may be taken away and given to someone else to punch it up (which is why you see so many co-authors on articles)
6) The Fact Checking. The primary difference between self-published and published work is fact checking. The fact checker is a professional who challenges every fact the author puts into an article. If I say, as I did in the article, that by 1890 the average urban American consumed a ton of ice, I had better be able to provide a source. The drafts I submit look ridiculous (filled with footnotes and links) but the fact checker has to meticulously verify every one of those sources.
7) The editing. Editors are by far the real talents in the publishing industry. They cut out unnecessarily wording paragraphs, rearrange the paragraphs so that it flows better and generally improve the readability of a piece. They can take a mediocre piece and really make it masterful. They also may make changes so that the piece becomes a component of a larger theme in the magazine. Sufficed to say the story can be very, VERY different from the author’s original vision, but in my experience it is better than it would have been otherwise.
8) The copy editing. Copy editors are generally the people who title the article; I don’t think I have ever had one of my cool titles appear with my stories. The copy editor reads the article and gives it a title. Why have copy editors? Because copy editors consider the titles of other stories and ensure that multiple stories don’t have the same or very similar titles. They also prevent adjacent headlines from forming a new and weird sentence
9) The Publishing. After all of this, the piece appears in print. If it’s hailed as the greatest piece ever than everyone takes credit, but if it’s not great everyone points a finger.
So while many of my stories end up miles away from where I started or envisioned, I continue to write and I continue enjoying writing. But I still keep my blog going so I can sound off about what I really think.